Local Treks: Butterfly House a sight to seePublished 9:19pm Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Thirteen different kinds of butterflies flit from flower to flower in the new Butterfly House at Sarett Nature Center in Benton Township: Monarchs, Viceroys, Mourning Cloaks, Julias, Queens, Gulf Fritillaries, Zebra Longwings, Common Buckeyes and Black, Tiger, Spicebush and Giant Swallowtails.
The butterflies are shipped to Sarett in chrysalis form from butterfly ranches in Florida.
“So every week, it’s like Christmas,” said Sarett’s director, Chuck Nelson. “We get a new shipment and we’ve got all kinds of new chrysalis to hatch out.” A window allows visitors to view the chrysalis and to watch them hatch into butterflies.
All the butterflies in the house are native to North America. The house itself is a 100-foot long structure, covered in mesh, and planted inside with cone flowers, butterfly bushes and other butterfly-friendly flora. Down the center is a water garden with rocks, waterfalls, water plants and koi. Folks can sit and watch the butterflies going about their business, or they can go “scavenger” hunting for the different types.
While people seem awestruck by the delicate creatures wafting on air currents, meandering seemingly without a care in the world, butterflies are in the end stages of their life spans. They are looking to mate, lay eggs and die. What “nectaring” they do is minimal. They take in just enough to keep them alive until they’ve laid their eggs.
“From the time it hatches, until the time it dies, a butterfly is continually losing weight and on a starvation diet,” explained Nelson. “Some butterflies don’t even have mouth parts.”
What emerges from laid eggs are caterpillars. It is at this stage that they spend most of their lives. It is the caterpillars who eat and eat and grow and grow — until the day comes for them to wrap themselves in the hardened chrysalis for their transformations into butterflies.
One of the best recognized and most widely known butterflies is the Monarch. The Monarch is part of Sarett’s exhibit, but it also lives and breeds in Michigan. They are known for their fantastic migration to Mexico, where they spend the winter. The monarchs that leave Michigan in the fall return in the spring to Texas, where they breed and die. The butterflies that emerge there move on to the middle of the United States, where they breed and die. It is their offspring that will fly on to Michigan for the summer and will migrate back to Mexico the next winter.
Sarett is famous for another butterfly — one that lives in the wet meadow and is not part of the Butterfly House exhibit.
It is the Mitchell’s Satyr butterfly. The Mitchell’s Satyr butterfly measures smaller than 2 inches across and is particularly fond of eating constrictor sedge, found only in the alkaline rich environment known as a fen. The butterfly is considered endangered, largely due to the loss of its habitat, and its favorite nosh.
“The Mitchell’s Satyr is a typical butterfly that has been really hurt by agriculture,” said Nelson. “It exists only in fens, and that is an area down in the wetland that is a meadow area.” Unfortunately, wetlands were under appreciated by the early settlers and were destroyed by grazing livestock, invasive species and other development. The Mitchell’s Satyr isn’t the only casualty.
Fens are also a favorite of the Massasauga swamp snake, the spotted turtle and sensitive orchids. All have suffered as fens have disappeared. Visitors won’t find any moths in Sarett’s butterfly house; they fly only at night. In fact, that’s one of the ways to tell a butterfly from a moth. According to Nelson, moths are much more plentiful, with thousands of moth varieties to only hundreds of butterflies.
“Butterflies stop and put their wings down so you can admire their beautiful wings,” said Nelson, chronicling more differences between the two. “When moths stop flying, they fold their wings up over their back. Moths fly fast. They’re capable of 25 miles an hour, where butterflies lope along at 12 miles per hour. Butterflies have club antennas; moths have lacy antennas. Most butterflies are pretty, and most moths are not. They both nectar and are surely valuable to plants in their growing as they pollinate.”
While butterflies play a vital role in the pollination of plants, they are also just plain pretty, and Nelson contends they may even lift a person’s spirits.
“Who could stay in a bad mood with butterflies flying all about?” he said. “Who couldn’t be nicer to all the people (they’re) going to meet?”